Monday, September 8, 2014

Hunting and Gathering

They say this is a good year for mushrooms. Our friend Natasha in Braslav has been taunting Alla for days in their frequent Skype conversations, showing ever-more-amazing mushrooms she’s been finding near her summer home. Clearly, we had to go.

We took the bus on Thursday morning. Alla and another passenger started freaking out as we approached Braslav and saw the quantity of mushrooms for sale along the side of the road. I thought one or the other might jump out of the window, but they both lasted until we finally reached our small-town destination. Victor met us while Natasha tidied up after the previous night’s labor of cooking, canning and drying the mushrooms she’d gathered the day before. We’d be needing that space in the kitchen.

As soon as we reached Natasha she whisked us into the woods. Alla and Natasha taught me to identify three mushrooms they considered worthwhile. They disparaged other edible mushrooms, saying they’d only bother with them in a bad year. This year, we’d only harvest “elite” varieties. I especially like the white ones, which they told me are safe even to eat raw though only I actually did it. Nobody here is used to the idea of eating raw mushrooms and most consider it scary. I grew up eating lots of raw mushrooms and don’t think twice about it when I have the right ones.

That first day we gathered less than a bucketful apiece. Natasha wanted to stay up as long as necessary to process them all and then get up to be on the road at six the next morning for a serious day of hunting. Alla negotiated her back to a 7:30 start, hoping to get something more like a normal night’s sleep. Natasha appeared to take the idea well, but she got pretty comical the next morning trying to make up for the late start by egging Victor on to drive faster into the forest. Victor does not drive fast, and the difference probably didn’t matter. Other people beat us to Natasha’s spot and they harvested a lot of mushrooms, but we still got a lot ourselves. I suppose it just took us a little longer, but I enjoyed visiting several different spots, each beautiful in its own way. And by the end of the day we had a WHOLE lot of mushrooms. I don’t know what they weighed, but I was surprised at how heavy were the two boxes we carried in from the car.

We arrayed ourselves in the kitchen to sort the mushrooms, some to freeze, some to dry, some to can and some simply to cook. We also set aside three or four nice white mushrooms for me to eat raw. We swapped stories over the mushrooms, trying to remember where they came from and under what circumstances who found this or that specimen. The cooking and processing tasks stretched into the next day, when we took a break from hunting.

Not that I got a complete break from bending over and picking stuff up from the ground. When I went outside I saw that the neighbor had gathered her extended family to harvest potatoes from a field big enough to warrant the use of a tractor. I knew Grandma as a very nice permanent resident of the village. Her extended family spilled out over the field, with her son-in-law driving the tractor, other men collecting bags of potatoes, and women and children loading potatoes into bags. They worked hard and they worked fast, as if perhaps the Nazis were about to return and steal their harvest. Grandma saw me taking a few pictures and asked me if I didn’t want to help out. What could I say? I went home and put on my work clothes, stole Victor’s Wellington boots and put in a good hour or more. Finally I decided I’d had enough fun and had atoned for taking those pictures of other people working so I went home and cleaned myself up. As I finished putting my shoes back on in front of the banya, one of the daughters brought me a big bucket of nice potatoes as a thank-you gift for my labors. We’ve already been eating them now, and they’re delicious.

Still, we had come to hunt so we went out near the village again the following morning, not too early. Somebody beat us to the woods and we met her staggering out with more mushrooms than she could comfortably carry. Alla asked her to describe where she’d been hunting so we could start somewhere else, but she said she’d been everywhere. Undaunted, we plunged in. I struggled to find much that this local hunter had missed, but Natasha filled her bucket with choice mushrooms which she apparently locates by X-ray vision. She’s amazing. I, meanwhile, sat down under a tree with a book after I got tired of poking around in the undergrowth. I did gather more than half a bucketful, but had to resort to some second-rate mushrooms to achieve that.

Natasha and Victor sent us home with more than our fair share of the harvest, and I think we’re going to have a pretty delicious winter. As a matter of fact, we had a pretty delicious dinner just now.

For other pictures, click here and start in the middle of the album.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

First day of school

Pupils in Belarus start the school year on September first, but somehow I never noticed the fact until this year, when Anna entered first grade. We went to join the festivities.

On the way we walked past another school and I noticed the kids all decked out in their school uniforms, many of them carrying flowers to present to their teachers. Parents posed them for photographs under trees and in other pretty places nearby. Today was called Day of Knowledge, and the kids looked quite earnest.

Anna's family got to school at the last minute, so I didn't see anybody until the kids made their grand entrance. Disregarding instructions about standing with parents behind the youngest kids, I got myself a prime location behind a bunch of high school kids. Somehow I missed the fact that they would be part of an upcoming performance, but I melted into the crowd of parents before my group made its grand entrance into the school for the first time in the new year. It's possible that somebody noticed a white-haired guy amidst the students, but nobody called me out on it.

The performance mainly focused on welcoming the littlest kids. Unlike everybody else, they started inside the school and they all received balloons. All the other students lined up to form a perimeter around the staging area and then the newest scholars marched into the midst and stood facing the school. We all listened politely to speeches, some of which I judged overly long, and then the little kids released their balloons; to applause and cheers.

As the ceremony drew to a close, the principal admonished the parents on the day's importance and urged them to do whatever they could to be sure their kids ended the day with happy memories of it all. We took our friends out for tea and cakes, and I certainly ended the day with happy memories